I was on a conference call recently, reflecting with several folks on how to best dialogue about issues of race in this country. A friend brought up the point that we need to elevate and shine a spotlight on things that are working. In that moment I didn’t give it a lot of thought beyond agreeing that it made sense.
Shortly thereafter my business partner shared with me the feelings of anguish expressed by several Black men in a Facebook group regarding the grand jury decision in Ferguson. She said they seemed hopeless because they felt things would never change. (You can imagine what they are feeling after the no indictment decision in the Eric Garner case.) She was pondering how she might offer them her support. I suggested she just listen and/or ask questions to better understand their feelings. At the time I was thinking that when emotions are so raw, people often respond in the extreme and with absolutes. I suggested that after some time to heal, these men perhaps would become more hopeful. My response to her immediately nagged at me. I thought more deeply about how I, as a Black man, really feel. Deep down do I really believe that the entrenched patterns of racial injustice in this country will ever change?
Because of my spiritual and religious beliefs, I’ve mostly been very hopeful that things, in the long run, would change for the better. However, when I allowed my deeper fears and apprehensions to surface, I realized my sense of hope for significant change in the short run had diminished. I firmly believed the racial healing work I and others are involved in would influence individuals and maybe even some institutions, and that would contribute to the betterment of humanity overall. I felt I was very committed to serving in that way. However, as more of my feelings emerged, I found myself questioning whether race issues in this country were simply too complex and nuanced for most people to be willing to deal with them. I was pretty discouraged about all this until it hit me again what my friend had said on the conference call.
The heart wrenching events in Ferguson and New York have brought out the good, the bad and the ugly of race relations, but for the most part all we are seeing is the bad and the ugly. What if we chose to elevate more fully what is working to improve race relations and what kinds of things are changing institutional patterns of racism? What if, instead of primarily focusing on the violence in Ferguson and the racial divide, we focused on how a diverse group of demonstrators were able to sustain themselves and deal with all of their race, class and cultural diversity under such stressful circumstances? The demonstrators protesting the decision of the grand jury in New York were diverse as well. The fact that it was not just Black people demonstrating and expressing their concern was encouraging in itself.
What if we focused on the kinds of noble and elegant responses that have emerged from so many of the parents who have seen their children killed under such tragic and questionable circumstances instead of focusing on isolated outbursts born out of anguish? What if we focused energy and thought on what’s required for people to take the high ground and act with such grace while being in such pain? How might that move those of all races to a more authentic level of interaction? What if we looked at all of the positive and profound mini-movements that have started around the country and analyzed more fully what is driving them? In some corners of our country it seems there are people coming out of the woodwork wanting to address issues of race. What if we looked at places where community policing was working or making a difference or where the police and the Black community have better relationships? What if we examined communities and relationships where genuine trust exists between Blacks and Whites or where Blacks and Whites have come together to support underserved communities in ennobling ways? What if we shined a light on those efforts? What if we focused our social media discussions and our news reporting on lifting up and analyzing these and other similar aspects of our current racial interactions?
If we did this in such a way that demonstrated how they represent concrete and real solutions that address the “bad and the ugly” of what is happening in race relations, then I would have hope for the short run. If they were presented not to gloss over the real issues, but to demonstrate what can be done and is being done by real people in real ways, then yes I would have hope. I bet others would too. Think about it. How can you have hope if you don’t see hopeful things - and not just once or twice but over and over again. I believe the Black men in that Facebook group have had a lifetime of being bombarded with images of things not working and things not working all over the country!
So I ask the readers of this blog to seriously ponder how we can each contribute to sharing what is working! I, and others who look like me and don’t look like me, need hope! My soul, heart and mind agree fully with what my friend said. We need to shine a spotlight on what is working! Dark has no reality in itself, it is only the absence of light!
Tod, you know I believe this also – I’m always going on about the big picture. But as a white man it’s a bit tricky for me to express to black folks what you’ve written here. They could easily regard my optimism as liberal, superficial and even distancing, and I could be perceived as “glossing over the real issues,” as you state, just intellectualizing about the problem at a safe distance.
So I am grateful that you have expressed with painful honesty your personal challenge to “keep hope alive,” as Jesse Jackson encouraged folks to do back in the 80’s. As much as I endeavor to empathize with your personal struggle and pain, I could never claim to fully feel what you feel and to understand the real impact of racism as you do. But, I’m coming to understand that there’s only one reality – not your reality and my reality. Racism is my challenge as well, and I must embrace the “bad and the ugly” of the struggle for justice that are burdensome aspects of our collective reality. Even so, being ready to embrace the “bad and the ugly” is a different proposition for a white man than it is for a black man, and if I choose to focus my efforts on embracing only the “good” – the “bad and the ugly” continue to ravage people’s lives and destroy communities.
Black folks don’t have the option to ask if they are ready to face racism head on. African Americans get hammered with racism on a regular basis; European Americans can plan if, how and when to face racism. Whites can determine to what degree we want to engage, and that’s a very deceptive privilege, because there’s an underlying toxicity that is taking it’s toll. We can try to convince ourselves that we are really engaged and that our own well being is intact, but some part of us knows we are dying inside.
I believe that in the long run the promises of peace expressed in all of the Holy Books will be fulfilled – that’s basically what I’m telling my grandchildren. And yet, the here and now is frightening and we don’t really know for sure what lasting effects our efforts to eliminate racism and raise a generation of prejudice-free children will yield.
I’m at a point where it’s not enough to just be a participant in the big picture process; I want to see some results, and I don’t think that is unusual for white Americans whose hearts are responding to such a profound loss. Based on my personal survey of current events, It seems like today the souls of a growing number of white folks are responding to the injustice and cruelty to black friends, children and complete strangers with a moral courage that is not fettered by concern for comfort, material wellbeing or popularity. The price we pay for denial and distancing – moral lethargy and spiritual retardation – appears to be acknowledged by many as a greater liability.
Certainly we have to give our children and grandchildren a realistic hope for the future. But that hope has to be grounded in reality, a reality that we are all invested in.
Tod, I spent some time in that same Facebook group on Tuesday, after learning of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death. I read again the outpouring of rage, grief, fear, shock, frustration. I also read the expressions of hopelessness and I realized something: the hopelessness frightens me. I’m able to hear and take in all the other emotions because they’re perfectly understandable reactions and I feel the same things myself, and also because I’ve practiced sitting with intense emotions around race. But when Black people say they feel hopeless, I have a sudden, nearly frantic urge to talk them out of it. I noticed the same impulse when I read your first few paragraphs.
I’ve heard this hopelessness expressed before and often it’s related to Whites’ apathy and denial. Black folks have asked me many times what makes me think White people will be willing to leave their comfort zones and work to dismantle the system of advantages that benefits us. Black men in particular have often told me they don’t think it’s ever going to happen. If the majority of White people can’t – or won’t – deal with racism, what will that mean? Maybe that’s why the hopelessness scares me, because it could mean that those who’ve been targeted will finally tire of waiting for the rest of us to shake off our apathy and arise with them. And then many of my fellow White folks (maybe myself included) will be left behind. The moral and spiritual implications of that are very disturbing.
I imagine this might be a fear that other White people feel sometimes – those who identify as allies and racial justice activists. It’s rare, in my personal experience, to hear Whites express hopelessness, because that’s the same as saying we’ve given up on ourselves. And in these online forums, I see how quickly and passionately Whites remind their Black co-members that they should never give up hope. I think what we’re trying to say is “please don’t give up on us.”
So I’m wondering what White people can do to create hope that things will change - not just in our children’s lifetimes, but in this coming year. What would be specific indications that we are willing to leave our comfort zones and do the hard work of restructuring our institutions? To do those things requires courage and sacrifice. In just the past few weeks, we have heard so many stories of Black people’s courage. We know what Black communities have been deprived of and what Black parents have lost. If we’ve been paying attention at all, we’ve seen the faces of Black men and boys whose lives have been sacrificed to an inhumane system of racist policies. What can we – White allies, social justice activists, racial healers, well-intention White people with good hearts – what can we bring to the table that is of equal weight? What do courage and sacrifice look like for us? What are we willing to give up? What are we willing to risk that meets the level of risk our Black sisters and brothers face every day? Can we respond to what’s happening around the country with actions that generate hope for everyone? Because without hope, it’s very hard to find a way forward.